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Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel was a strategic miscalculation. Can all-out war now be averted?

Apr 14, 2024 | Ran Porat

Image: X/ Twitter
Image: X/ Twitter

The Conversation – April 14, 2024 

 

Close to midnight on April 13, hundreds of military drones were launched from both Iran and Iraq toward Israel. Subsequently, several waves of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and rockets followed, originating from Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon – all directed at Israel.

This unprecedented multi-front attack on Israel constitutes a de facto declaration of war and marks the first direct assault against Israel from Iranian soil. However, despite the scale of the operation, it appears to be a tactical failure.

If Iran wanted to test Israel’s ability to deal with a multi-front aerial assault, than the Israeli score is almost a perfect 100. According to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), 99% of the more than 330 weapons fired at Israel (at least 185 drones, 110 surface-to-surface missiles and 36 cruise missiles) were intercepted mostly over other countries.

Only minor damage occurred at the Nevatim Airbase (near Be’er Sheva in the south). A 7-year-old girl was seriously injured by shrapnel, possibly from an intercepting unit.

Why Iran felt it had to act

The attack was a direct response to the killing of Iranian General Mohammad Reza Zahedi (also known as Hassan Mahdawi) in Israeli airstrikes on April 1.

Zahedi, a senior commander in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force in Syria and Lebanon, was allegedly responsible for terror attacks against Israel and the arming of Iranian proxies in the region. His death occurred while he was in a building adjacent to Iran’s consulate in Damascus – a location the Iranians claimed is protected by international law.

This incident represents a tipping point. The regime in Tehran, incensed by Zahedi’s death, vowed strong retaliation against Israel. In Tehran’s collective memory, Israel’s history of attacks includes numerous strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, assassinations of scientists within Iran, and actions against Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Despite these provocations, Iran’s counter-strikes against Israel have been so far minimal or insignificant. Iran’s response to the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in 2020, for instance, was feeble.

Due to the pressure the extremist leadership in Tehran is facing, it evidently felt it could no longer ignore such insults. The regime is increasingly concerned about its own stability, grappling with a failing economy battered by decades of sanctions.

Despite violent oppression and an increasing number of executions, internal dissent persists. This has been fuelled by years of popular protests (most recently following the 2022 death of 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini) and ISIS-affiliated terror attacks within the country.

But this weekend’s attack appears to be a grave miscalculation by the leadership in Tehran. The US and other countries in the West swiftly rallied to support Israel. Although tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden are high due to the ongoing war in Gaza, Washington still strongly and unequivocally stands by Israel.

Most of the Iranian projectiles were intercepted through a coordinated effort by Israel and the US, UK and France militaries. Notably, Jordan also intercepted the Iranian drones despite threats from Tehran not to intervene after weeks of Iranian attempts to destabilise the country.

Both sides would rather avoid a war

Israeli officials were quick to promise a robust response to the attack. The government cannot tolerate another blatant infringement on Israel’s sovereignty, reminiscent of what Hamas tragically achieved in its October 7 attacks.

Israel has an array of retaliation options, including cyberattacks, long-range missile strikes on Iranian soil, aerial operations using jets and drones, and covert operations.

A strong action would be crucial to sending a powerful message to Iran and the broader region: “Don’t mess with us.” Despite Iranian officials’ desperate attempts to contain the situation, declaring the score with Israel is settled, Israel’s response is expected to be severe, as its Middle Eastern allies anticipate, and maybe even hope for.

The risk of escalation toward an all-out war remains real. However, both sides would prefer to avoid it. Israel’s military is already stretched thin with the war in Gaza and rocket attacks from Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in the north.

Tehran would likely be worried about Israel striking its advanced nuclear program sites, which have been exposed as a cover for nuclear weapons development.

Meanwhile, the US is wary of being further entangled in the regional conflict, since it is already dealing with the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

In addition, Biden reportedly does not trust Netanyahu’s judgement. Washington does not believe Israel was fully transparent with the US on its operational plans in Gaza and the killing of the Iranian general this month.

Too many Palestinian civilian deaths are also creating a moral and political problem for Biden’s re-election campaign. Biden promptly contacted the Israeli PM when this weekend’s attack began, cautioning against an Israeli counterattack.

The upcoming days will be crucial – a test of the international community’s ability to stabilise the tormented Middle East. Unfortunately, the signs at the moment are not encouraging.

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